We chose this trip very carefully. What we liked was the lower mileage than is usual for Explore Worldwide trips. This suggested only a little time spent travelling in vehicles and the promise of walking days. It just shows how wrong you can be.
We arrived at Delhi at 04:30 local time, feeling a bit weary. All the passengers gathered around the carousel and waited for the luggage. As time passed Joan and I realised that we were in a group of a dozen or more individuals who had no luggage, but did have Explore Worldwide labels.
Totally luggage-free, we met up with our tour leader and set off for the hotel. Not a single piece of luggage had arrived; it was evident that during the rapid transfer between flights at Abu Dhabi no-one had transferred our luggage pallet.
As our first Indian city, Delhi looked surprisingly normal: only mildly overcrowded and only moderately poverty-stricken. The one thing that did seem odd were the cows loafing around in the middle of the fast lane with the traffic braking and driving round them.
We spent much of our first day touring the public buildings of Delhi and we then went to see the Delhi Pillar, which is a metallurgical curiosity. We finished with a visit to a carpet salesroom for a now-familiar sales routine. This year, instead of being offered the mint tea of Morocco we got the cardamom-flavoured variety of India, as they showed us carpet after carpet.
Next day we were up at 05:30. Such things can be mildly unpleasant, but in this case the pain was tempered by the sight of our luggage, which had arrived by the flight 24hr later. It had been collected from the airport by Ric, our totally sleepless tour leader.
Still bleary-eyed, we climbed into a bus and drove off to the railway station. It was very big and scruffy. Since our train went from platform 16, we negotiated for the services of some porters. These were thin-looking old men in scarlet robes. They did not look fit enough to carry anything, but they took three bags each and swung them up on to their heads and marched off.
The train was a bit stark but had air conditioning and one soldier with gun per coach. We got served with a cold bottle of drinking water. Then chai (milky tea) and biscuits. Finally a breakfast of omelette and more chai. Not quite like British Rail. Through the windows we saw the urban trackside slums slowly give way to waterlogged fields and rural slums. During this it began to rain. At Chandigargh we dashed through the rain to the little Mitsubishi bus that we would see so much of over the next weeks. We set off on our journey to Rupnagar in torrential monsoon rain.
By the time we arrived the rain had abated, so we went for a walk. We walked alongside the river to a very long bridge. I was quite taken by the rich cocoa coloured water pouring through many arches into a second stream. I was about to take a photo, just in front of the little house full of bridge personnel, when they all swarmed out like hornets. Some did not speak English and others were so overcome by indignation that they had difficulty speaking! I managed to get the idea that taking photos of bridges was a near-capital offence. Luckily I managed to look sufficiently apologetic and assured them I had not taken the photo. We crept away with the camera intact and back in its case.
After our walk we had a quiet afternoon sitting on armchairs dozing on our balcony, well provided with Geckos, overlooking the river. An interesting feature was the provision of a pair of clothes lines conveniently sited across the front of the balcony. We were just regretting that we had no washing to hang on it, when we noticed that the "clothes lines" were mounted on ceramic insulators at both ends!
Dinner was in a gloomy room. We chose from the menu and were told we could not have our choice because there was "no rice". This was India. After some discussion we chose Chow Mein, which was duly served.
Breakfast next day was served at a very reasonable 07:30, then we set off in the rain. There was a Sikh temple for us to visit on the way. There we met a group of Sikhs from Wolverhampton. They were there to return the ashes of a relative to India and to have a nice holiday.
Later in the morning we crossed the border into Himachal Pradesh. By lunch time the rain had eased and we stopped at a modest roadside restaurant where we had a splendid lunch. A range of curries served, and we could try them all.
We drove on to Mandi, which is a crowded little town with narrow streets, situated by a confluence of rivers. Our stopping place in Mandi was the Raj Mahal Hotel. This was an impressive looking building which had formerly been the palace of a local ruler, but was now rather dilapidated.
The rooms were full of faded (or to be more precise, rotted) furniture. Our room had no external windows, but it did have a tunnel-like corridor leading to our own bathroom, where we had a sword mounted on the wall for a towel rail. Our room also had lots of unlabelled light switches, some of which produced not light but servants who materialised like genies from a lamp.
There were lots of corridors and interesting-looking rooms. In one area there was an internal courtyard, full of ducks with their own little paddling pool. We investigated the garden, where the rain-dampened chairs were dried for you by uniformed staff and cushions were brought when you went to sit down. In one part of the garden there was a flower bed with defunct fluorescent tubes embedded in the soil for the plants to grow up.
Next day, into the bus again. Still raining. We were now getting up into the mountains. The tally of wrecked trucks along the road was mounting rapidly: smashed trucks, overturned trucks, trucks in ditches and even a truck hanging half in a river.
We stopped to admire a view of water thundering through a spillway from the Beas River dam. When the dam was built, the present road was built on one of the cliff-like banks of the river gorge. This has changed the upper valley totally, since previously the only trading was done by mule train. Now there is a thriving market in apple-growing and a tourist trade at the hill resort of Manali. (If you wish, you can open a map in a second browser window)
We drove on to Manali and stopped at our hotel, the Highland Hotel, situated high above the town. From there we walked down via woods, temples and side-roads to the main street and market of the town. It was definitely set up for tourists. After a stroll around the market, Joan and I walked back up to the hotel. In our room both the water supply and the heater worked, so we had hot showers and went for dinner.
Late evening we heard that some of our party, who had opted for dinner in town, had experienced a half-hearted mugging attempt just inside the hotel grounds. There was no loss or damage.
In the morning Joan was not well and decided to stay at the hotel all day. The rest of us went out for a walk. First we called at the "German Bread Shop" to buy some filled rolls for a picnic lunch. I thought the shop sounded unusual, but I was later to learn that nearly all Indian bread shops are "German Bread Shops" and that all drinks stores are called "English Wine and Beer Shops".
The weather was good and we headed up the valley in our bus and with the aim of walking back down along a footpath. The path proved to be pleasant walking as it meandered through big boulders among grass, trees and meadow flowers. The general effect is very similar to the Alps.
The route took us through several villages. The most memorable of these was a large village where everyone seemed to be working on tidying the village and its paths. They all seemed friendly and one little girl gave us some apples and another gave us a flower. Later we ate our packed lunch by the side of the river and then continued downwards. The path was now poorer and we even had to scramble across some steep rock buttresses. There were many orchards along our route and people were picking the apples. Finally we passed through Old Manali, a scruffy large village, to reach the hotel again. Joan was there and feeling much better.
In the morning we packed up and by 08:30 we had started up the valley towards the Rhotang La. The road was narrow, but well made and was surfaced. The surroundings were of trees, meadows and flowers. It all looked very picturesque and we were making good progress. Abruptly, as we came round a bend we found the road ahead blocked by stationary vehicles.
Ric diagnosed a landslide. So, since I could hardly get lost, I started to walk up the road to have a look at this landslide. It was not far to reach a bend in the road. On reaching it I was surprised to see a column of lorries reaching up one wall of a side-valley, round a hairpin bend and back along the opposite wall, before disappearing around the next similar bend. A lot of lorries - several days supply of lorries!
A fair amount of walking took me to this second bend. Around it, as you may have guessed, was an even longer string of lorries leading in the hazy distance to the blockage at the bend of a second and larger side valley. At the head of the column it was just possible to make out a bus making its way slowly across the landslide. A long walk got me to the landslide where an area of road the size of two or three tennis courts was buried in rocks, but people had repacked the surface layers of these rocks to form a detour track of sorts.
Vehicles were getting through, but very slowly and often with human muscle power helping. The army were present in force and were directing progress. When the first of their own vehicles reached the blockage, things became more brisk as they engaged four-wheel drive and ploughed through. They were compacting the surface very nicely. When the last army lorry had crossed our own bus was only some six vehicles away from the blockage. Many hours had been lost, but it seemed that we were at last on our way again.
Sadly, it did not happen. A couple of lorries waiting in the smaller downhill queue forced their way across the blockage and, since there was no way they could proceed, the whole thing locked solid. It was an interesting demonstration of the Indian way of doing things. Everyone looked disappointed, but there was no shouting fighting or displays of anger. A face-saving distraction was arranged with a bulldozer picking uselessly at the blockage for the next two hours, actually making it worse. The offending lorries were then parked hard to one side and whole process continued from where it had been some 2 hours earlier!
Finally we got through. A little further up the road we stopped at a small village called Kulang to have our lunch at open-air tables. This was clearly a tourist area. The services of hirers of fur coats and takers of photographs demonstrated that the main aim of the place was to allow Indian tourists to have their photos taken standing on patches of mountain snow.
We pressed on to the bleak top of the Rhotang La (3978m), then over it and down the far side a little to arrive at a remote and splendid sandy campsite. It was pretty cold as the height was over 3500m. We pitched camp and saw tables and chairs set up in our Mess tent for the first time. We made our acquaintance of our two-man tents. These were made in India from Laura Ashley patterned fabric inners combined with flysheets so thick you could practically hold the cloth extended horizontally.
Next morning we were woken at 07:00 by a cup of chai delivered to the tent. Later we packed up camp and set off on the very narrow and unsurfaced road. Happily there was now very little traffic. It seemed a very long day, slowly bumping along in the bus. Our bus had a five speed gearbox, but it was rare indeed to use anything apart from first and second. Over the next few days we were to become used to being overtaken by laden lorries and by ramshackle overloaded local buses.
We had a lunch stop at the top of the Kunzum La (4500m). This was near a large chorten with masses of prayer flags crackling in the stiff breeze. The sky was blue and there were snow-covered mountains forming a magnificent backdrop. We continued and eventually arrived at the Spiti River. There we set up camp on the flood plain. The evening was sunny but the temperature was low.
Several people were not well, perhaps partly as a result of the altitude, and Margaret seemed to be very poorly indeed. Ann, who shared her tent, had actually been worried that she might not last the night!
Then followed a truly dull day bumping unremittingly along in the bus through quarry-like scenery. It had still not sunk in that we were to be doing this nearly every day. Finally we arrived at the small town of Kaza. Margaret was examined at the local hospital and given some medicine. Afterwards we drove on to a camp site on a very wet field with standing water over most of its surface. We put our tents up on the drier bits and had an early dinner. Ric then made an announcement that he had heard that there was a major landslide on the Eastern section of our planned loop and that we would have to retrace our route. Repairs to the road were likely to take until 1997.
Today three of us (Danish-Michael, one of our two Peters and myself) were to do a walk with Ric. We set off early in a jeep, which was fast and comfortable compared to our usual bus.
We first made our way to visit Ki Gompa for a visit before the walk. It is a typical Tibetan gompa set on a high pinnacle above the village. It has a lot of white-painted buildings and looks spectacular. We took the jeep right up to it. Our timing was good: when we arrived there were two rows of monks squatting on the floor finishing some tea and food. Abruptly they all started ringing gongs and blowing horns. This went on for a few minutes, then they settled to a long series of chants. The effect was quite dramatic; it all sounded just as a film producer might have staged it.
After the gompa visit we drove higher up to Gete at 4270m, where the jeep dropped us. We set off on our walk... upwards! It immediately became apparent that I was going to have trouble; my breathing was very laboured and I was badly down on power. I am not saying that the others were exactly galloping around the place but they were doing a lot better than me.
I followed in their wake, working hard with all the tricks of economy learnt from years in the mountains. Even so, I was holding them back, but I hope not too badly. We gained quite a bit more height and passed through some tiny hamlets where the local people were very courteous and friendly in a restrained way. At one village a small boy came running after us with a fossil which Peter bought from him for 10 rupees. The boy looked very pleased. Ric then found his own similar fossil, lying in the path, so they both had one now!
Ahead of us we could see another gompa and it required uphill walking to reach. Eventually I got there, stopping every hundred metres or so on the uphill stretches. By now I was really in a bad state.
The gompa was totally deserted, but we could wander through the yard and look in to some of the rooms. It was here that we could see in the gloom of one small room a roughly carved and painted effigy of a snow leopard. This was the nearest we would get to seeing some meaning in the grandiose title that Explore had given to our trip. From then on our trip was referred to as "The Realm of the Stuffed Snow Leopard".
After leaving the main building of the gompa we passed a smaller building where an elderly monk was supervising the recitations of four small boys. Below that we passed a younger monk coming up the path (we were going down at this point, to my delight). A few moments later he called after us, apparently offering us chai. We turned and I had to fight my way back up the path again. I literally staggered into the building, through some earth-floored rooms to enter another room with some real style. It was carpeted and the layout was reminiscent of the bridge of a ship. One wall was nearly all windows. They looked out to distant ranges of snow covered mountains.
We sat looking at the magnificent view, while the young monk started a primus stove and prepared some chai for us. Ric was able to exchange a few words with him, but there was no common language for the rest of us. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of spoken communication I felt very relaxed and welcome. We managed to find a few packs of untouched biscuits left from our packed lunches, which we gave to the monk. He carefully prepared the chai for us. It was all quite delightful: the feeling of welcome and good humour and the truly magnificent location.
Finally the time came to go and he waved us away. After a short descent, our route had a final rising section. I really had to force myself to keep moving. I wondered how it would have been if I had not had the rest, shelter and chai at the gompa.
After a while on level or gently descending paths, we found ourselves on the brink of the vast cliff and scree slopes above the small town of Kaza. We could see the outlying buildings in the depths below us.
The descent seemed interminable and my legs were going to rubber. At long last we arrived. The jeep driver was waiting there and pointed us to a dirty little hut. It was a shop where we were able to sit down and drink a glass of chai. It tasted excellent.
That done, we got into the jeep and drove back to camp. Joan had not had a very good day, and had spent it out in the bus visiting gompas. She told me how they had Margaret with them and how at one gompa Margaret had been literally dragged up a set of steps with Joan on one side and a lama on the other. I felt tired. I managed to eat some soup, the dessert and drink some tea. Afterwards my sleeping bag seemed very welcoming.
Today we packed camp and bumped off on another slow, miserable and uncomfortable drive to Tabo. This was the furthest we would venture along the original route before turning back. It is a weird place, set out like a military camp and it has a painted and annotated map on a prominent central signboard. Clearly whoever organised it all was more proud of the helicopter landing site than the collection of gompas. Apparently one of the gompas is exceptionally old and the helicopter pad was specially put in by the army for a visit by the Dalai Lama. At a place so close to the disputed border with Tibet/China, these things have a big political significance.
We spent some time visiting the gompas which were dark, damp and windowless. They were all descended from an architectural tradition that had strong connections with cowsheds. The gompas were full of photographs of notable lamas. They also had photographs of major gompas. The photos were hung amongst red drapes and collections of relics, while in the centre of the room there were rows of prayer mats.
Afterwards another bumpy ride back to a small hamlet called Sichling, where our tents had already been pitched. An interesting feature of our site was an elevated ditch flowing across the centre. As the afternoon progressed there was a lot of digging of drainage channels and, by dinner, a moving of individual tents. Personally I did not feel too good and after we had all retired to the tents, I had a death-rattle of a cough which must have alarmed the rest of the party!
During the night Joan and I were aware of several commotions and people moving tents. By morning we heard that several tents had been awash during the night; one of them had already been moved before dinner. Peter and Gill had apparently got so wet they had been moved into a nearby house during the night.
In the morning the main group went off to Dankar Gompa, but I stayed behind. I explored the hamlet, noting that "our" water channel flowed through the hamlet for water and sewage rather than being used for irrigating fields. Later I walked quietly up the road towards Dankar, enjoying the watery sunshine and rejoicing at having escaped from the clutches of the bus. There were a few locals also walking up the road. Eventually I saw a non-local coming down towards me. It turned out to be Joan; she had had enough of buses and gompas and had opted to walk back down. We sat together beside the road for some while and eventually the bus came bumping down from above. English-Michael got out, saying he could not stand any more and went back to the campsite.
The rest of us drove bumpily up the Pin Valley. Once at the head of the road we were actually allowed out for one of those all-too-rare walks. We travelled some 4km along hillside paths and passed through a couple of small hamlets. It was good to be exercising and the local people were very friendly. We finished our walk near a bridge. While we were waiting for everyone to complete the walk, a group of women and children came past looking as though they were off on some sort of celebration. They stopped and the little girls decided to do a dance for us. They all put on head scarves and formed a circle to dance. We applauded and they continued with some more dances. It turned into quite a show.
We started the return journey today. We stopped at Kaza, where we went to the sole source of diesel fuel to buy enough to get back over the mountains. It was difficult since the road blockages had produced rationing. By the time Ric had chased around getting a submission typed and getting various officials to sign it, we had spent 80 minutes waiting by the side of the fuel pump.
Afterwards we had another very long drive, finally stopping at Losar. There was no sign of the jeeps that should have been following us and, since they had all the camping gear, arrangements were made for us to be billeted in local houses and above the shop. Joan and I, with Michael and Marilyn, ended up in the house that claimed to be a hotel (The Sun & Snow Hotel). Accommodation consisted of a room and a bed. There was a hose outside for washing, but toilets were definitely missing: after dark you made your own arrangements out beside the road.
The following day we stopped for lunch in some strange barracks-like buildings on the edge of the Losar admin. area. These were useful since the rain was falling heavily. We then continued along roads that looked to have taken a battering since we last come along them. In some sections, traction was bad and there was a real danger of getting bogged down.
Finally we were stopped by a huge boulder lying on the road where it traversed a steep mountainside. A party of German tourists were also held up there, as were a number of lorries. Various attempts were made to roll the boulder or to break it up. These were unsuccessful and we had some interesting moments as the mass of the landslide moved just uphill from us. Finally an attempt was made to jack the boulder back slightly using two lorry jacks. This worked and our bus got by with its outer wheels running on a "road supplement" made of boulders piled out over the drop. The uphill side of the bus was badly scored on the boulder as it squeezed by.
By now it was getting darker. Soon we were stopped again by yet another landslide. This time we all worked by the light of pocket torches, moving stones to level the surface of the debris. Before any attempt to get the bus across, our two jeeps first crossed and went on to reconnoitre the road ahead. After a long delay, Ric came back on foot to announce that the road some 2km ahead had collapsed under the second jeep, although it had luckily managed to keep moving.
We were now cut off. We got the luggage down off the roof of the bus and stowed it inside. From the luggage we extracted our sleeping bags. Then we set off on foot, leaving behind one person to guard the bus. We trudged through the night by the light of our pocket torches. There were several rivers flowing down off the mountain across the road, but we just trudged squelching through them in the dark. Finally we reached the jeeps. These were used to ferry us some miles up the road to the level patch where we had camped the previous week. We got the tents up in the rain and, having got something to eat, crawled gratefully into our sleeping bags.
In the morning Ric, Danish-Michael, Peter, myself and some of the staff feasted at first light on tea and slices of Cherry Madeira cake. Then we set off to rescue the baggage. This meant a 2km walk down from the collapsed road, crossing the streams on the way. At the bus, we each picked up two luggage bags and carried them back, before repeating the process. I was grateful that I had finally acclimatised to the high altitude (about 4300m).
We left two of our staff on the bus, with some two weeks food and a cooking stove. I also left them a bottle of whisky to help enjoy their stay. Things might have been difficult but a) I was glad to see the last of the damned bus and b) I felt that something interesting was happening at last.
Back at camp we huddled in the mess tent for breakfast and for shelter from the rain. Meanwhile, negotiations went on to hire two more jeeps locally. Finally all was arranged, luggage was hung about the vehicles, and we set off over the Rhotang La. Apart from the luggage rack coming adrift on one vehicle, all went well. On the way down we passed the original landslide. It was still bypassed by an improvised track.
Finally we reached the Highlands Hotel in Manali. We all had showers, before an evening of beer and food and bed.
The next day was a rest day in Manali. Joan and I walked down into Manali and had a stroll around the town before crossing the river and walking on to Vashisht, where there are hot springs. We arrived feeling rather droopy from the heat. We sat for an hour on a restaurant veranda idly drinking apple juice. We then went to the "paying" baths and were given a small suite of tiled rooms with a mini swimming pool full of hot water, set in the floor. We had paid for 30min, but it seemed wise to settle for 10min in the pool and the rest to cool down and change.
Afterwards we sat at another stall drinking apple juice for some while before descending to Manali and continuing up to our hotel. To our surprise we heard the news that the bus was on its way back. Later it chugged through the gates and into the hotel yard. Although most road repairs are done by bare hands, in this case a highway crew had used a couple of sticks of dynamite and a bulldozer to get the road opened.
Today we started to head for Shimla by road. The drive was a pleasant one over a surfaced road that wound its way through attractive steep tree-covered hills. We had all heard of this famous hill station of the Raj, but none of us had pictured it quite as it was: clinging to precipitous tree-covered slopes.
Next day we go up early and admired the garden of the hotel and watched the monkeys on the hotel roof. After breakfast we took a ride to Shimla, where we gained height via two public pay-lifts to reach the Ridgeway. This is an elegant promenade: obviously the place to walk and meet your friends.
After touring the town we tried a fast-food restaurant and met dozas for the first time. These are giant thin crispy pancakes folded to a triangular shape and filled with a thin layer of spiced potatoes and vegetables. We had them with lassi, which is a yoghurt-type drink with added salt. It all tasted good. We did some shopping, then after another break, we set off up some incredibly steep roads to the Hanuman Temple on a hilltop where all the local monkeys get fed.
After a night at the same hotel, we packed and went down to the railway station with its narrow-gauge railway. This was elegant, clean and not at all crowded in the first class wagons. Our luggage meanwhile continued by road on the bus.
The railway line was beautiful. The hills in the area are all steep and heavily wooded. The line twists and turns to get through them and occasionally it tunnels through a hill. From time to time there was a small station by the line; all very sleepy, with perhaps four trains a day. Today rated as one of our good days. We were not being shaken, there was good scenery to see and plenty of room and comfort on our way to Chandigargh.
After a night at Chandigargh we were taken to the station where we made the journey back to Delhi. Back at the Ashok hotel again, we sat at our 11th floor window watching the kites circle in the updrafts outside.
For our last evening we ate in the hotel. We had a buffet style meal in a large elegant dining room with all of the lights out because of a power cut. That was our final impression of India.
This one rates bottom of all the trips we have done before or since. (No fault of Ric, who was superb as tour leader and helped keep up our spirits)
It was a miserable blend of the Explore "get you somewhere else as soon as you have arrived" with the shortcomings of the vehicle provided. The latter was underpowered and uncomfortable - it was consistently overtaken by overloaded lorries and battered old wrecked buses overflowing with local peasants. My impression was of a journey taken in a tumble drier through endless quarries. When the road was finally washed away and we had to leave the bus and go forward on foot and local transport, the situation was finally improving.
When we were allowed to stop, the surrounding countryside was delightful and full of interesting things. If anyone from Explore is reading this will they please read the quote from Frank Smythe
The 1999 version of the trip looked a lot better on paper. The travelling seemed to have been speeded-up to arrive at a place where a trek through the mountains would take place. A client on this trip did tell me that they enjoyed it.
This trip continues to generate a certain amount of controversy .
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